Robert Gehrke: Utah’s negligence in oil and gas oversight is jeopardizing our birthright

Robert Gehrke

Congratulations, Utahns. You have a stake in a nice plot of land. A lot of it, actually.

The state of Utah owns about 5.5 million acres of forests, waterways, mountains, hills, parks, prairies and, yeah, a fair amount of arid desert.

Some of it is spectacular to look at, some of it fun to play on, some of it essential to our livelihoods and some of it worth a lot of money because of the oil, gas and minerals underneath it.

But as Utah residents, we entrust our state officials to care for it, manage it effectively and, as Gov. Gary Herbert put it, “through careful deliberation … identify the most responsible stewardship for our varied lands.”

It’s an essential exercise because these lands are not simply ours. They also belong to the next generation and all of the ones that will follow.

That’s why an audit this week that found an astounding lack of oversight of oil and gas operations should be troubling to all of us.

The mission statement for the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining — or DOGM — states that it “regulates and ensures industry compliance and site restoration while facilitating oil, gas and mining activities.” But, as the audit makes clear, it is failing miserably.

Not once in the past 24 years could the division identify a single fine levied against companies drilling on state land. Not once.

That would be terrific news if it meant that all of the oil and gas companies were following the rules and doing everything by the book, but it doesn’t. Not by a long shot.

Indeed, DOGM identified 105 wells that were not complying with state laws or administrative rules. On average, it took these well operators 842 days — that’s two years and four months — to resolve compliance issues. And that’s the average, meaning in some instances the blatant disregard went on much longer.

One operator alone had 15 unresolved compliance issues.

Fewer than a third of violators were ever issued written warnings — called notices of violation — by the division and, to reiterate, the last time auditors could identify that a fine had been imposed was 1995 — the year O.J. Simpson was found not guilty and a year before Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell was born.

By comparison, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming had all issued fines within the past two years.

It sends a clear message to operators: Utah regulators should not be taken seriously. One operator was issued four violation notices but, according to auditors, “blatantly disregarded” the notices, likely realizing “there is no consequence for doing so.” During that time, the same operator submitted numerous applications to drill new wells.

These are often not trivial matters. Oil and gas production produces toxic byproducts that end up in evaporation ponds. In 2016, state regulators required one producer to replace the liners on its evaporation ponds within two years. That didn’t happen, and in April regulators found a spill from one of the ponds that apparently has been leaking for some time — long enough to kill vegetation.

The state Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are still evaluating the impact of that leak to see if groundwater has been impacted.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, captured the consequences of regulatory inaction: It makes the statutory duties merely a suggestion, creates an uneven playing field, guarantees an increase in violations, jeopardizes public health and safety, makes it more likely there will be environmental damage, causes companies to view their obligations with contempt and makes citizens believe their tax money is being wasted.

And Brian Steed, head of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees DOGM, agreed with King’s assessment.

This level of negligence doesn’t happen overnight. It has festered for years, decades even, because of a failure of leadership at the division, humiliating deference to the industry that the division is supposed to regulate, and an abject failure of oversight.

Auditors made a series of recommendations to fix the problems, and division management, naturally, says it is taking steps to restore a “culture of compliance.”

But why should taxpayers trust regulators to be able to clean up their own act when they looked the other way for so long while the oil and gas industry was polluting our land?

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